answering the mailbag: keeping the van clean and organized

Hi Chris,

I am a mother of four with a mini-van. Affectionately called the junk pit in our household. I can’t seem to control all the junk in our van! Papers, toys, you name it, it’s been in there. How do you take care of all of the stuff your kids bring into your vehicle?

Take care,

The deputy’s wife


A few years ago a friend of mine was telling me how she climbs into the back of her van and secures her children’s booster seats in with seatbelts when they are not riding in the van with her. Her reason? They could become projectiles in the event of an accident and kill her.

I hadn’t even considered that possibility. And to be honest, most of the time I take the big van, I have children with me in those seats. But it did get me thinking about everything else we routinely carry around in the van unsecured. And how I would be more likely to be killed from petrified McDonald’s hamburgers that have been discarded and sticks and rocks.

I am not an organized person by nature. I don’t color co-ordinate things or have a label maker. I am exceedingly normal and do not hold myself up to be anything other than that.

Keeping my van organized and clean is a challenge for me. Because honestly who wants to climb over all the seats and make sure that the children have picked up all of their trash on the way out. Usually I am busy carrying in whatever we have bought, and children, and their shoes, jackets, hats, gloves…. Also, I am too lazy to really care until it gets bad.

There are something that I do on the organization front that I think are helpful, even for the challeneged like myself. INstead of focusing on keeping things as neat as possible, I try to keep everything that is under my control organized.

I have one of those plastic rubbermaid drawers that I keep in the back of my van. It has everything that I need and I can easily transfer it from van to van to car depending on what vehicle I am taking. What is inside of it? Diapers, full size container of wipes, packages of snacks, complete change of clothes for the youngest two ( a sundress and one piece romper), a generic mid sized t-shirt that could fit any of the other kids in a pinch, a first aid kit.

I also have a case of water. In the winter the case of water will go, so it doesn’t freeze and explode all over the back of my van, and it will be replaced space wise with a bin containing extra hats, gloves, blankets,candles, and a fold up shovel. Also a jug of windshield wiper fluid. Have you ever been out in bad weather and had mud all over your windshield and no way to clean it off because you have run out of fluid? Other than pulling over frequently and tossing snow onto it while the windshield wipers go back and forth in an effort to clean the dirty windshield. No? Uh, well consider yourself lucky.

Depending on the weather I may carry a bag of rock salt an/or sand in the back. Usually I buy a few at a time and store them in the back of the van until I need them around the house. The extra weight is good in the back of the rear wheel drive van and in case I ever get stuck anywhere I have the sand for traction and the rock salt to melt ice. Also, if we get stranded and have cream and sugar in the van we could make ice cream. I have never needed these things, but I also do not drive in bad weather.

Up to the front of the van. I keep a plastic grocery store bag hanging off the arm rest. Kids can’t throw away their garbage if there is nowhere to throw it away, obviously. They are more likely to pass it forward in the van than to carry their debris inside the house to throw it away. Any papers they may have that are loose I ask them to pass forward and I place them on the front seat. Five of the same announcement, four can go right in the garbage bag.

The actual cleaning of the van happens before we embark on a fun trip somewhere. I will go outside with all the kids about 15 minutes before we need to leave to get to the fun place and tell them as soon as the van is clean and garbage free we can leave. Amazing how quickly those children, who have previously denied that there was anything messy, can clean when there is an incentive.

In the front console in the van I keep things that I might need, like scissors, a lighter or matches, hand gel, napkins. In the winter I always have a box of tissues. Under the front seat I have a small rubbermaid container which houses some small coloring books, colored pencils (crayons melt! and markers will be used to write on the car interior), a couple of board books and small toys. This was if we are detained anywhere we have some entertainment.

And that is it. All my strategies to try and stay organized in spite of the efforts of my children.

13 Responses to “answering the mailbag: keeping the van clean and organized”

  1. Novaks8 Says:

    Do you eat in the van?
    This is 95% of the problem I have in my Suburban.

    I was good and cleaned out all the trash at the gas station this morning.

  2. The Lazy Organizer Says:

    You sound wonderfully organized and messy. Just like us. A big trash can with extra garbage bags does the trick in our van. They can double as extra clothing for the children should they decide they want to play in that mud puddle.

  3. JTS Says:

    Thanks, Chris. That was helpful.

  4. Joann Says:

    This could have been written by me!! (the question, not the answer). I hate having a dirty van, but with 4 kids always bringing in a craft and school papers every day it sure does get there. Thanks for the tips, especially having the grocery bag on the arm of the seat.

  5. KimC Says:

    Great tips - I should use them. I won’t get around to it - if I were organized enough to do that I would have tips like this to share, but my van is an eternal mess!

  6. T in HD Says:

    I’ve never really used diaper bags but I did pack one of those big ones with dipes, wipes, change of clothes, meds, tissues, etc. and it’s kept in the back of the car. We’re big on car safety and nothing is allowed in the car that could become a deadly projectile in an accident including an unbuckled booster seat. One thing we added to the glove compartment is a pair of heavy duty shears (sp?). In an accident where time might be short, I don’t want to have to struggle to unbuckle three kids from the seats. I’ve also read some horror stories where seat belts have jammed and couldn’t be released. I want to know I can cut the kids out of their seats if need be!

    I am a hopeless neat-freak and am as organized as my family will allow me to be (I’m waging a losing battle, I’m afraid) but our car is a dust bin on wheels. :-( In spite of the “no deadly projectiles” rule, it still a wreck most of the time. At least I know what does collect won’t kill us in an accident….

  7. Sarcastic Journalist Says:

    But what if they insist on dragging things to the car? My child wants to bring everything we own out the door with her and since we’re usually running late and I’m busy juggling a ticked off baby, my purse and something he’s trying to grab, I just let her.

    And now, I drive the junk mobile.

  8. Jennifer Says:

    I too have 4 kiddos and spend a lot of time in my Suburban. What works for me is to keep some small plastic garbage bags in glove compartment. I also have a “what you bring in you take out” rule with my kids - therefore, backpacks, arts & crafts, sports stuff all come out at the end of the day. Hopefully, the kids are learning to be a little more responsible with their stuff.

  9. Jen Says:

    Your box sounds like mine! Hey, just one more suggestion for your box, can of fix a flat and a small fire extinguisher. Cause, well, you just never know do ya?!

  10. Chris Says:

    Thanks for addressing my question Chris. Since asking this question, I have done a major overhaul of our van. I really like your idea of keeping items (and toys for us) in a container. We also have a new rule, you bring it in, you take it out. It seems to be working, for now.

    Thanks again Chris! It is nice to get input from another mom. Especially when the input sounds so much better than anything I can come up with!

  11. Lawanda Says:

    That whole clean it up in 15 minutes before the fun can begin works well for me. And when I say works well, I mean that the van looks neater than normal before we go somehwere fun. It doesnt look clean by any means. We keep a trash can up in fron of the console too. I hate it when we forget to bring it with us.

  12. Steph. Says:

    One other tip on keeping it clean, whenever I fill up with gas, I use the time that the SUV is being filled up to go around my car and check the inside for trash and get rid of it. Inevitably, I also end up sorting some stuff and making piles to take in as well. Also, we usually keep a basket/bin between the kids two seats where all small toys and things go. At the end of the week, everything must be put in that bin and carried in and put away and we start over. My kids always bring tons of stuff with them in the car, so sometimes we get too much for the bin, but it does seem to help contain things into one area.

  13. Deb Says:

    Don’t forget to use bungy (spell) cords to secure trashcans, etc. We eat in the car too, but the trash can really helps.

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